The Art of Apologizing

It’s not easy being in relationship. When two people are sharing their lives and space, there will be times when things don’t go smoothly. Even in the healthiest of relationships, we make mistakes. Disagreements happen. Feelings get hurt. We’ve all been there – you say or do something that upsets your spouse. You know you’ve screwed up and so you approach your spouse with the intention to apologize.

Fast-forward a few minutes. After many, many words and a gradual increase in the heat in the room, you feel like your attempt at an apology only made things worse. What started out as an effort to bring the walls down between you ends up adding more layers to the divide.

There is no doubt that all of us have found ourselves at times having fallen flat with an apology attempt. It’s not surprising really, as most of us have never learned how to apologize – and therefore we carry forward mistaken ideas about what it means to apologize. Some of it comes from when we were very young.

Most of us weren’t taught how to apologize well

Think back to your childhood. When did you first learn to apologize? If you’re like me, you learned at home or on the school playground to quickly say “I’m sorry” when you were unkind or hurt someone. (Do the words, “Give that back and say you’re sorry!” or “Tell your brother you are sorry, right now!” sound familiar?) Sometimes the apology was genuinely spoken and other times it was spoken flippantly just to check the box and get back to whatever it was we were doing. Either way, those were the simple days. You said the words and everyone was quickly friends again, most of the time.

And therein lies part of our problem: We still think in playground terms. As we mature, how we apologize to one another must mature as well. Unfortunately, this is a lesson many of us never learn. We still think we can just say the words and everything will be okay.

As we grow through our teen and young adult years, we need someone to teach us – or better yet, show us – that apologies require more than words, if we want another adult to truly accept our confession. When we don’t learn this, we carry damaging behaviors into our adult relationships, including our marriages.

''As we grow through our teen and young adult years, we need someone to teach us --or better yet, show us - that apologies require more than words.'' Click To Tweet

The misconceptions of making apologies

Renowned couples therapist Dr. Ellyn Bader has documented the “myths that get in the way of true apologies.” I’ve based my list of misconceptions on her list of myths, expanding on some and starting with the ones I hear most commonly from our clients.

Do you believe any of these?

Misconception #1: By saying “I’m sorry,” I’ve done my part.

This is by far the most common and probably most damaging misconception. It treats your marriage as two warring parties trying to negotiate a truce, rather than as two people working to build a stronger bond.
The reality: In healthy apology-making, your part isn’t over until your spouse feels you are willing to take action of some type in order not to repeat the offending behavior.

Misconception #2: I’ll apologize, but I have the right to make sure they hear my side.

In the famous words of therapists the world over, “How’s that working for you?” An apology followed by an explanation justifying or excusing the situation is worth…..nothing. You’ve wasted your breath and your spouse’s time. And, you’ve dug yourself a bigger hole.
The reality: For our spouses to truly believe our apologies, there must be no justification-giving whatsoever. Later, when you’re both in a better place, there may be emotional space to explore thought processes and misunderstandings, but that SHOULD NOT be part of making the apology itself.

Misconception #3: I’ll apologize, as long as they know I don’t agree I did anything wrong.

Dr. Bader says this really well: “Apologizing is not about accepting blame for something. It’s about acknowledging and responding to your partner’s emotional pain, regardless of how guilty or innocent you deem yourself in the situation.”
The reality: Our partners must feel we identify with their pain, period. It is what it is, and we had a part in it, and we don’t want it to happen again.

Misconception #4: I’ll apologize, but I want them to know they shouldn’t have taken it so seriously.

You’re right, sometimes our spouses are overly sensitive. And sometimes we are. If we get caught up in trying to change how they feel by saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal out of this,” we delegitimize their feelings. When you negate the other party’s feelings, your apology attempt will fail miserably every single time.
The reality: Their truth is their truth. What hurt them, hurt them. Acknowledging your part without in anyway trying to minimize their feelings is crucial to rebuilding a bridge.

Are you willing to face the realities?

We have a fundamental decision to make in our marriages: Do I work to build up my partner and do what it takes to strengthen our marriage bond, or do I continually look for ways to build up myself? The former is a path of self-giving love. The latter is a path of defensiveness and wall-building.

As with most things in life, there is a caveat to these apology protocols. There are some marriages in which abuse is involved and one spouse must protect herself/himself from the other spouse. In situations of abuse, these protocols do not apply. In fact, saying “I’m sorry” may not only be inappropriate, but also unsafe to do.

But that is not the norm. For most of us, working out how to apologize – and how to hear one another apologize – is a core relationship skill. It’s also a skill with which many couples struggle. Saying “I’m sorry” the right way takes some finesse and practice, making it a perfect area to explore with one of our counselors or coaches. Why not devote some intentional time to learning how to do this better?

But that is not the norm. For most of us, working out how to apologize – and how to hear one another apologize – is a core relationship skill. It’s also a skill with which many couples struggle. Saying “I’m sorry” the right way takes some finesse and practice, making it a perfect area to explore with one of our counselors or coaches. Why not devote some intentional time to learning how to do this better?

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One thought on “The Art of Apologizing

  1. I’d like to see a follow up article to this, that covers how to accept an apology, and the art of forgiveness. It seems to go hand in glove.